Before I start, yes, I know I’m late to the party. Yes, I know that Life Is Strange is almost four years old. And yes, I know that Life Is Strange 2 is currently in progress, but my recent, first-ever playthrough of Life Is Strange has had such a profound impact on me that I feel the need to write my thoughts down, like I simply just need to tell somebody about it. This isn’t a review (after all, the game is almost four years old), it’s more like a journal entry about my experiences with the game, possibly inspired by the journal entries that feature so prominently within it.
Life Is Strange was an unexpected hit when it released way back in 2015. Created by a little-known French developer called Dontnod Entertainment, it went on to receive great reviews and over 75 Game of the Year awards and listings. It was released in five episodes throughout 2015, with Episode 1 debuting on January 30th 2015 and the finale debuting on October 20th 2015. I’m not one for episodic video games (imagine having to wait 2-3 months between episodes of your favourite TV series, no thanks) so I gave it a miss, but its recent addition to the Xbox Game Pass sparked my interest, and the knowledge that all of the episodes would be available to me without having to wait persuaded me to see what all of the fuss is about, and it has affected me more than any game I can remember.
You play as Maxine “Max” Caulfield, a shy, selfie-taking, 18-year old photography student at the prestigious Blackwell Academy in the fictional Arcadia Bay, Oregon, Max’s childhood hometown that she recently returned to after moving away to Seattle a few years prior. At the beginning of the game, Max has a vision of a vicious storm engulfing the whole of Arcadia Bay. Awakening from her vision in the middle of her photography class, she makes her way to the bathroom to regain her composure, only to witness a fellow student get fatally shot. In a sudden effort, Max realises that she has the ability to rewind time, and uses her power to reverse events and ultimately save the girl who turns out to be her childhood best friend Chloe, who she hasn’t spoken to since she moved away. Over the course of the next week (and the game) Max tries to prevent the storm that she has envisioned while simultaneously rebuilding her friendship with Chloe—and building new friendships within her school—and investigating the recent, mysterious disappearance of fellow student Rachel Amber.
Gameplay sees you exploring Arcadia Bay’s various settings—Blackwell Academy, Chloe’s house, the scrapyard, the local diner—interacting with various items and speaking to the different characters to learn more of their back stories and ultimately solve puzzles that help to progress the story. Speaking to characters often offers you multiple dialogue options that will affect how characters think of you, how the story unfolds and, ultimately, how your game will end. If you don’t like the choice you’ve made then you have a small window of opportunity to use your “rewind time” ability to go back a few seconds and change your dialogue option, and your ability to rewind time also comes in useful for some puzzle solving. As you continually use your rewind time ability, the game starts to explore the concept of the butterfly effect and chaos theory, with every small change that is made ultimately changing the entire timeline.
It’s the stuff of pure sci-fi cliché and I would be hard pressed to tell you that it hasn’t been done better before. The story is interesting enough and it does throw up some truly emotional moments, but that’s more down to the ever-evolving friendship of Max and Chloe than the fact that Max can rewind time. The game is actually at its best when the whole time manipulation thing isn’t the focus and Max is simply going about her daily business: sitting in her dorm, checking her laptop, hanging out with Chloe, speaking to her fellow students – it’s at these moments that Life Is Strange truly shines. The game has a wonderful art style and a beautiful soundtrack to accompany these moments, and learning more about the world around you—you can inspect a mass of items as you explore that further enhance the backstory of the world around you and its characters, with Max’s thoughts played to you through voice over—and learning more about your fellow students and building relationships with them is far and away the most interesting part of the game. The game deals with a mass of taboo subjects that adolescents go through, from depression and suicide to social anxiety and sexuality, and the choices you make along the way can help your fellow students deal with these issues or compound them.
It’s powerful stuff that is entirely relatable for anybody who has already been through that stage in their life, largely helped by a large cast of very relatable characters, some likeable and some incredibly dislikeable. All of the characters are high school archetypes that you’ve seen a thousand times before—the nerd, the snotty-nosed rich kid, the jock, the rebellious emo-punk—but they all have such depth that you’ll find yourself wanting to spend more time getting to know them and using your rewind ability to help them when the opportunity arises. All of these characters are brilliantly voice acted, which really helps to bring them to life, and you’ll receive texts from them that reflect how your relationships with them have developed. Throughout all of these events Max keeps a journal that you can read through, summarizing her feelings on the events that have unfolded. I found myself very interested in reading these journals to understand how Max was feeling, even though I experienced the bloody events myself. It’s weird.
This whole thing is weird. I’m effectively telling you that my favourite part of a sci-fi, time manipulation, mystery thriller game was living the high school life of a shy, reserved, 18-year old girl. But that is my favourite part. It made me feel nostalgic, it made me think back to those days of seeing my friends every day, developing those early-life relationships and making decisions that ultimately shaped the way my life has gone.
I didn’t realise how much all of this had affected me until I finished the game. Turning my Xbox off, I sat alone in my house and I suddenly felt this weird feeling of loneliness come over me. I already missed the characters of Life Is Strange and the world that they populate, it was a sudden feeling of emptiness that I couldn’t seem to shake. Taking to the internet to read about the game—I have this weird need to know everything about the film/tv series I just watched or the game I just played, I need to know how it was constructed—I found page after page on Reddit of people who had the exact same feeling as me when they finished the game. Some people were sad that they didn’t have any kind of friendship as close as Max and Chloe (the reality is that Life Is Strange is an idealized world and such intense friendships are very rare/none existent), some people had realized how much they had lost touch with their childhood friends, and for some people it had simply reminded them how lonely they were. It’s seemingly commonly referred to as “Post-LIS Depression”, which seems a ridiculous concept, but so many people seemingly experience it and took to Reddit to discuss it that it’s impossible to deny its existence. You may be thinking “surely this isn’t a good thing?”, but it shows you how true to life the game is at times that it can resonate with people so deeply, and it’s great that people took to Reddit to openly talk about their feelings and comfort each other, and hopefully doing so helped them.
For me, the game definitely made me realise just how much I miss my younger days in high school where I would spend all of my time with my friends, be it at school or just hanging out, doing nothing outside of school hours. It’s natural for people to drift apart and have less time to hang out as they get older, but it made me realise that I need to make more effort to see my friends and keep in contact with them. In the mere 24 hours since I finished Life Is Strange I have reached out to several friends, either to arrange a social event or simply to check in with them and see how they’re doing, and I’ve spent time thinking about the decisions I have made and how different my life could have been had I made different ones. It’s crazy to me to think that a game would ever have such a strong effect on me that I would feel a need to do that, but Life Is Strange did just that.
Life Is Strange isn’t a perfect game. In fact, it’s far from it. The story has inconsistencies, it gets convoluted to the point that it almost confuses itself, I wasn’t fulfilled by the ending, the decision-making isn’t quite as impactful as the game would have you think, there are some graphical issues and the lip-syncing is dreadful at times, but none of that matters. The game has resonated with me in such a way that I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, so much so that today I found myself driving both to and from work listening to the soundtrack (which apparently isn’t available to buy, I had to make the effort to research each track and download them individually and put them all together into one playlist) just so that I could reminisce on my time spent in Arcadia Bay and the characters that I spent that time with, and to think back to a time when I was at that age.
It would be easy to think that Life Is Strange is a game about time travel and mystery-solving set against a backdrop of a persons formative, high school years, but it’s not. It’s a game that is primarily about both friendship and those formative, high school years and the relationships that we form during them, with a sub story of time travel and mystery-solving present to give the experience a narrative.
Life Is Strange is a gaming experience unlike any other that I have ever played. It has affected me in every way possible: it has made me laugh, made me happy, sad, nostalgic, lonely, and everything in between, and it has made me take positive steps to ensure that I don’t lose contact or become too distant from my friends. There is an interesting story to experience in Life Is Strange but it’s so much more than that – there are characters to meet, there’s wonderful music to discover, a charming world to explore, and reminders of just how important and precious friendships are.
Life Is Strange isn’t just a game, it’s an experience, one that I feel that everybody should find time in their schedule to try. Life Is Strange is an absolute must-play.
Life Is Strange is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. It is currently available to play through the Xbox Game Pass.